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Childish Thinking

Without a long exegesis on the merits of child labor laws, allow me to raise the following observations without comment (for example, we could spend weeks discussing what it means to be a child). My sense is that most people would view child labor laws as useful, and that the employment of children is a woeful and abusive enterprise.

  1. Child-labor laws are not obviously necessary.
  2. The employment of children does not seem to me to be materially worse than almost anything else “we” do to children (more in a second).
  3. Imposing strict one-size fits all child labor laws is remarkably unjust and inefficient. I know some 30 year olds who are incapable of making decisions while I know some 15 year olds whom I would entrust my estate to.
  4. Thinking about the inner-city, it appears to me that child-labor laws make it difficult for youths to leave abusive and unsupportive homes. How could they move out and start a life of their own when they are forbidden from working? Further, forbidding them from finding work in the formal labor-force only makes it more attractive to work in the black market – where safety is less assured and pressure on wages is downward from where it would be if formal child labor were permitted. There was a famous chapter in the original Freakonomics which indicated that the hourly wage of a typical drug runner was along the lines of $3.00 and that drug runners had an insanely high probability of not surviving their job. Less nefariously, having child labor laws still makes it hard for the teenagers in well-adjusted families to get on with their lives.
  5. It is not at all clear to me that a kid “working” in the labor market, voluntarily mind you, and for pay is in any worse position than a kid that has a family putting him through nutritional and weight training programs, year round sporting camps, leagues and evaluations, etc. I know more than a handful of kids who are totally exhausted and burned out from these sporting commitments – and they certainly do not receive remuneration for it, and they are certainly performing worse in school because of it.
  6. On point 5, apply the same thing to many kids dedicated to musical and other artistic endeavors.
  7. Incidentally, the youth of JS Mill seems to me to be no worse than the children “exploited” in many a factory at that time – he is famous for having read and basically mastered “everything” by the time he was 10 years old.
  8. What exactly is child labor anyway? I put up an ad on a website to have a design made up for me, and a 14 year old kid once responded to it with a pretty cool drawing. If I hired him, would I be running afoul of the law? Is his submission of a bid already afoul of the law? Do we really want to police the online activity of 14 year olds to prevent such abusive exploitation by people like me?

2 Responses to “Childish Thinking”

  1. jb says:

    Here is something I have never understood. When child labor laws were inacted, it presumably threw a bunch of kids out of factories and I guess emerging compulsory education laws redirected them into schools.

    But hadn’t the families decided it was in everyone’s best interest, the kid included, to keep the kid working, even though school, or some other alternative was available? If so weren’t the families necessrily made worse off by enactment of these laws?

  2. Harry says:

    JB and Wintercow provide thoughtful analysis, provoking me to through in my two cents.

    Having grown up on a dairy farm, my own child labor meant that as soon as my father thought I was capable of driving a John Deere B through a corn field with a cultivator he had me on the tractor. This was great fun. I may have felt exploited for having to mow assorted yards, but working in the summer was something I never questioned.

    A decade later we would hire other teenagers, and even after the wintercows were gone, would hire other great kids.

    One went to the Naval Academy, got a Marine commission, and became a SEAL, and I have to think his waking up at 4:30 AM to milk the cows, not to mention lifting 200-pound feed bags contributed to his admirable character.

    We had two dozen more or less kids work on the farm over the years, in addition to regular employees. Many turned out well, several other success stories.

    Today, with workmen’s comp and all of what one has to go through to hire a teenager to stand on a hay wagon to stack bales, I’m glad not to have to worry about it, let alone let a teenager to get close enough to a cow to milk it.

    Which brings me to my new kid who mows my lawn. His job is also fixing fences, understanding machinery and biology, and understanding how to use tools, including the basic ones: an adjustable wrench, a big screwdriver, and a hammer.

    All of this has happened without benefit of the Stimulus, or the Keynesean Multiplier.

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